Grassroots-Supported Journalism Takes On Anniversary of Drug Sentencing Laws

Aug 28, 2013
Originally published on September 18, 2013 9:06 am

"For drug pushing — life sentence. No parole, no probation, no plea bargaining."

This statement, said by former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller during a meeting with top advisers, set forth a new set of rules, passed in 1973, for sentencing in drug-related crimes. Those rules have arguably altered the sentencing of thousands of those convicted for even minor drug possession offenses in New York and nationwide over the last 40 years.

One region of the country that has seen those effects first hand is the northeast corner of New York state — North Country as it's called by locals. Since the passing of the Rockefeller Laws, prisons there have become part of the economy by creating jobs and part of the area's physical landscape.

Brian Mann has been covering the prisons of New York for 15 years as a reporter for North Country Public Radio (NCPR), an NPR Member Station based in Canton, NY, less than 20 miles from the Canadian border. He's reported on the prisons' effects on the local economy, the local culture and the local politics. And in the process, he started pulling on the thread that slowly uncovered a story bigger than the North Country region he covers.

"I realized there was an interesting pattern in the way our rural area connects to the rest of the state and the country," Mann said. "Many of the people from the larger cities who know about this region don't know it for its beauty or recreational opportunities, they know it because they have family members behind bars here."

Recognizing the national implications of the story right outside of his front door, Mann, and his colleagues at NCPR, undertook an ambitious reporting project to tell this national story throughout this year, which marks the 40th anniversary of the Rockefeller Laws.

"Brian wanted to explore the full story of that 40-year history," said Ellen Rocco, General Manager of NCPR. "Including the stories that emanated from the invisible side of the geography. And, we wanted to connect the North Country and NYC stories to similar stories that had been playing out in rural and urban communities everywhere in America."

The scope of the project, called the Prison Time Media Project, is impressive. Since January, NCPR has taken time to tell the stories of individuals, and the stories of a region and a country affected by these laws. When the station staff first made plans to start the project they asked the question any small organization with an ambitious vision would ask: Can we do it?

"Can we cover the depth of this story ethically and responsibly," Mann said. "Do we have the resources — both in reporting and fundraising?"

Throughout the six months of planning, filled with both good luck and roadblocks, Mann said there was one thing that kept him pushing forward to figure out ways to make this project happen.

"This is just a story that needed to be told," Mann said.

One of those stories is of cutbacks to New York's prison nursery program, which allowed inmates to live with their babies. The state's Department of Corrections discovered that this program cut the chances of a woman coming back to prison in half.

"We broke that story," says Mann. "And I'm really proud of the questions we raised about how prisons are or are not helping people."

Being able to tell these stories is exactly why NCPR decided to spend its limited time and resources on the Prison Time series, said Rocco.

"NCPR is a news, information and cultural resource," she said. "Our goal — the gold ring we're always reaching for — is to be the hands-down irrefutable go-to regional news organization. Another goal is to connect the stories of our North Country communities with national and worldwide stories. Prison Time addresses both of these core mission strategies."

At the center of this project, Mann is in the position any journalist craves: a chance to work on long-form journalism and have the time to dig deep and investigate many facets of one particular topic.

"It's been the most exciting, most joyous program of my career," he said. "I grew up reading [American journalists] I.F. Stone and Adam Hochschild. I've always wanted to do a project not on an immediate deadline. To really dig into the archives, connect the dots. It's been absolutely worth it and very rewarding. In this new world of journalism, lots of reporters don't get this time and have pressure to work fast creating smaller pieces, some with the constraints of a Twitter feed. My team got to do old-fashioned journalism."

His team includes Assistant Producer Natasha Haverty, who does research; conducts interviews; writes, edits and produces pieces for air; and writes for the blog. The process of finding the stories to tell has been the most valuable to her. The first story she produced was a profile of George Prendes, who was sentenced to 15 years in a maximum security prison under the Rockefeller drug laws.

"When we found George, I loved the experience of interviewing him and watching this flood of stories pour out," she said. "Some stories he'd never told anyone before, either because they had once been too raw, or painful, or because he hadn't wanted them to come up over the years as he was working on getting his life together."

In the process of hearing these untold stories, Haverty said she's learned important lessons in how to be a better reporter.

"I've learned that asking challenging questions is a gift to the person you're interviewing," she said. "That any dichotomous conceptions (across the walls, across racial lines, gender lines, community borders) are there to be broken down, with the help of the people you're interviewing. No one is a symbol."

Mann's team extends beyond the reach of the NCPR signal and includes WNYC, an NPR Member Station in New York City, and NPR.

"We had an idea that was bigger than us and having help from reporters and researchers in New York City and Washington elevated the series in huge ways," said Mann. "We discovered key audio recordings in the Nixon Library thanks to NPR's research team. And WNYC's Arun Venugopal did an incredible job finding voices in Brooklyn and Harlem that we couldn't reach. NPR Bureau Chief Andrea de Leon's edits on individual pieces have made them sharper, more focused."

The Experiment

Connecting the dots and delving deeper into individual stories has been fulfilling, but the team also has plans to create an hour-long radio documentary that brings these individual narratives into one clear story for public radio stations across the country to broadcast.

"[The documentary is] a format that will let us, the producers, and the listeners make connections — across people, places, issues — that the scope of a shorter story on a news show may not allow for... and also provides more opportunities for listeners to learn, reflect on and interrogate this chapter of American history," says Haverty.

However, this additional aspect of the project hasn't come without its own set of challenges.

"Our local and in-house fundraising efforts had tapped all the usual sources," Mann said. "The generosity of the people in this rural area is extraordinary."

But it wasn't enough.

"The incarceration explosion of the last 40 years is a national story, not a local or even a regional or state story," Rocco said. "It's a big story, and needs more resources than our small rural station has in its regular budget to support. We raised money from a couple of foundations, and a couple of private benefactors to get the project off the ground, and then decided we needed to reach beyond our radio boundaries. A national story deserved national support. Kickstarter allows us to crowdsource from well beyond our radio signal's reach."

With just about 54 hours left in the month-long Kickstarter the campaign, the station did reach their goal of $19,500. If the crowdsourcing experiment didn't attract enough support, the station wouldn't receive a cent. But since the funding did come through, this story just might tell us something about what this country values in public journalism.

"Kickstarter tends to be a fan club..." said Mann. "We are journalists though. Our jobs are not to be part of a team. We are likely to irritate people. We are going wherever the facts and reporting takes us. We are still maintaining our independence. This is different than other Kickstarter campaigns. We are asking the question, 'Is grassroots-supported journalism worth chipping in for?'"

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